New York-based theater veteran Donna Vivino had led quite the charmed life when it comes to landing coveted Broadway gigs, including the original Young Cosette in Les Miserables and Elphaba in Wicked.
But this month, Vivino is taking on what she called her “favorite role” to date – Diana, a mother who suffers from bipolar disorder and is the central character in the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical-drama Next to Normal, which premiered on Broadway in 2009.
The show, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, is the second production in Bristol Riverside Theatre’s 33rd mainstage season and runs Oct. 29-Nov. 24, with opening night on Thursday, Oct. 31, at 7:30 p.m.
The musical is a heartbreaking, humorous and unflinchingly authentic look at a seemingly normal modern family who must deal with the daily struggles of Diana’s worsening mental illness. It addresses grief, depression, suicide, drug abuse, ethics in modern psychiatry and the underbelly of suburban life, with powerful original songs by Tom Kitt (American Idiot) that have become musical theater standards, including “I Miss the Mountains,” “You Don’t Know” and “Superboy and the Invisible Girl.”
“Next to Normal confronts very contemporary problems,” said BRT artistic director Keith Baker. “The show expands the notion of what musical theater can do and the subjects it can approach. It does this while being utterly compelling and entertaining. I love this piece because of its courage, its fearlessness in tackling this subject and the quality of its score and lyrics. It does not flinch at all.”
Vivino first saw Next to Normal on Broadway several years ago, and said she remembers thinking to herself, “I’d like to play that role someday.” Though it wasn’t something she actively sought out during her career, the opportunity to play Diana at BRT arrived under serendipitous circumstances.
While in Atlanta, Georgia directing a youth stage reading of Les Miserables, Vivino’s agent informed her of Next to Normal auditions being held in New York. Since she couldn’t travel to the Big Apple in time, Vivino captured her talents on film. Ironically, Vivino was also doing a concert in Atlanta with none other than Alice Ripley, who originated the role of Diana on Broadway.
“She looked at me and said, ‘You got this. If you want this, it’s yours,’” Vivino reflected.
Two days later, she got the highly anticipated call informing her she’d be making her BRT debut.
“Diana is a woman filled with rage and confusion,” said Baker. “She has a sardonic and lacerating wit. She loves and is a mother, but is overwhelmed. She is lost in a wonderland. She must find the answer to save herself. The actress playing Diana must be able to make us sympathetic to all of this. Donna was perfect for this role.”
According to Vivino, who has a 3-year-old child, this is prime time in her life to play Diana.
“I didn’t really understand her when I first saw the show, and I do so much more now, having a child and having lived longer and the complexities of life. It deals with mental illness, but it also deals with family, healing, grieving and communication, all these things that really resonate with me even more now,” she said. “I think it’s one of the greatest parts written for a woman.”
Although Next to Normal touches on heavy topics, Vivino stressed that it’s not all dark.
“It’s definitely intense, but there’s some lightness to it that I’m discovering. The show is kind of funny, that’s the thing. I think what’s so brilliant about it is they find the humor in it. It’s a drama, but there’s also some pretty humorous stuff,” she said. “Diana’s delusions are even kind of funny sometimes.”
Audiences can also enjoy a searing score written by Kitt.
“It’s really a rock musical, too, that’s what’s so cool about it. Everyone is singing, and we’re singing hard. It’s six people but we’re all singing at the tops of our ranges,” she said. “The music and lyrics are astounding. The more we do the show, the more I realize it won the Pulitzer for a reason. It’s genius writing.”
Next to Normal also stars Danny Vaccaro (BRT’s Time Stands Still, Lost in Yonkers and Tuesdays with Morrie) as Diana’s husband Dan, Laura Giknis (BRT’s Time Stands Still, Working, An Enemy of the People, Little Shop of Horrors and various Music Fest concerts) as conflicted daughter Natalie, Liam Snead (BRT’s Broadway Summer Spectacular) as Diana and Dan’s son and BRT newcomers Gary Lumpkin as Henry and Scott Greer as each of the doctors who care for Diana.
“If you’ve never seen Next to Normal, come see it,” said Vivino. “It’s really one of the great contemporary musicals of the last 20 years. It’s just so amazing.” ••
If you go…
Next to Normal runs at Bristol Riverside Theatre from Oct. 29-Nov. 24. Tickets range from $15-$55 and are available at brtstage.org, by calling 215-785-0100 or at the box office, located at 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol. Subscriptions for the 2019-2020 season are still available.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org